Notes on Prayer: James 5:13-18

The recent notes and studies on Hezekiah’s prayer (see the previous study in this series) dealt with the subject of praying for healing/deliverance from illness or disease. This is a longstanding aspect of human religious experience. There is a natural tendency to turn to God (or a particular deity) when one is faced with illness, and especially so if the condition is life-threatening (as in the case of Hezekiah). Even persons whose religious commitment or devotion is minimal are likely to petition God for healing in such circumstances. This continues to be true today, even with our much increased understanding of the scientific physiological causes of disease (and resultant treatment). The current pandemic, however, afflicting people in different parts of the world, has highlighted the limitations of even the finest examples of modern medicine, and brings to the fore a renewed interest in the religious phenomenon of prayer for healing.

Like the psalm that follows the prayer of Hezekiah (in the Isaian version, 38:9-20), and attributed to the king, there are a number of Psalms which are framed as petitionary prayers to YHWH for healing (from life-threatening illness, and/or related dangers). You may wish to consult, for example, my earlier studies on Psalms 6 and 30. In such Psalms, a lament for the suffering one faces alternates with thanksgiving for the deliverance God brings (or will bring). Mixed in with the petition is an appeal to God, based on the fact that the sufferer (the protagonist of the Psalm) has remained faithful and devoted to YHWH, repenting of any sin and disavowing association with any wickedness. The protection God provides the righteous, according to the principle of the covenant-bond, would include rescue/deliverance from any life-threatening danger.

When we turn to the New Testament writings, it is interesting to note how little is said regarding healing from illness—and of prayer for healing, in particular.

To be sure, there are many incidents of healing recorded in the Gospels and Acts. A number of healing miracles performed by Jesus are recorded, some of the episodes being told in a most memorable fashion, often tied to important sayings and teachings of Jesus. Healing miracles were especially characteristic of the Galilean ministry period, according to the narrative structure of the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. Luke 7:21-22 par, cp. 4:18-19ff). In addition to the specific miracles recorded in the Synoptic tradition, we have the key summary statements in Mark 1:34; 3:10 par, etc. Given the close association, in the thought-world of people at the time, between evil spirits and illness/disease, it was natural that miracles of healing were related to exorcism miracles, being performed equally (and at the same time) by Jesus (cf. especially the tradition in Mark 3:22ff par). His disciples were given authority over the evil spirits, so that they could perform the same sorts of healing miracles (Mk 3:15; 6:7, 13 par). This continues among the apostles and early Christian missionaries in the book of Acts (cf. 3:1-16ff; 4:30; 5:15-16; 8:7; 9:32-42; 14:8-10ff; 20:7-12; 28:8), where miracles were performed ‘in the name of Jesus’. Healing miracles were also part of the manifestation and work of the Spirit among believers, at least in the Pauline congregations (according to 1 Cor 12:9, 28ff).

In spite of all this, the recorded miracles of healing are not specifically tied to prayer by the person afflicted. Prayer is mentioned in the exorcism miracle tradition of Mark 9:14-29 par (v. 29), but as a requirement for the person performing the healing (i.e. Jesus’ disciples). The context of the Synoptic narrative tradition in Mk 1:35ff par would suggest that Jesus’ ability to perform healing miracles was connected in some way to his time spent alone in prayer. But nowhere do we see prayer enjoined on the person who is afflicted—i.e., that they should pray for healing, and thus be delivered from affliction. The closest we come to this, perhaps, is in the exchange between Jesus and the blind beggar in Mark 11:47-52 par (cf. also the exchange with the crippled man in John 5:6ff). However, the point is that trust in God (and in Jesus) results in healing, not prayer per se (cf. Acts 14:8-10).

More to the point, nowhere in the New Testament does the author direct or encourage believers to pray for healing when they are afflicted by illness. The inclination to pray to God in such instances was so commonplace (and natural) that perhaps there was no need to mention it; however, given the tendency toward superstition and quasi-magical ritual in such matters, one might expect some direct teaching on the subject. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, there is no petition for healing and physical health as such, unless it is to be subsumed under the request for ‘deliverance from evil’ (Matt 6:13); given the close connection between evil spirits and disease, this is certainly possible. The best support for the idea of praying for healing is found in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in the “Last Discourse”, if we view requests to the Father “in my name” as a more generalized extension of the apostolic healings peformed ‘in Jesus’ name’ (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24ff; cp. Acts 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10ff, 30; 16:18; 19:13ff); requests for healing would thus be rightly included among believers’ prayers to God.

There is, however, little evidence on this point in the remainder of the New Testament writings. Paul refers repeatedly to prayer for deliverance, but typically in the context of rescuing he (and other ministers) from dangers and obstacles in proclaiming the Gospel (Rom 1:10; 15:30; Phil 1:19; Col 4:3; 2 Thess 3:1, etc), and not for healing from illness or disease as such. There is really only one passage in the New Testament that ties together prayer and healing from disease, giving specific direction for believers in the matter: James 5:13-18.

James 5:13-18

The teaching in this passage is relatively straightforward, even if we do not have complete information on the details of the prayer/anointing ritual that are being referenced.

“Does any(one) among you suffer bad(ly)? He must speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray]. Does any(one) have a good impulse? He must make music (to God).” (v. 13)

Two general conditions are described here: (1) suffering some kind of trouble or affliction (not necessarily illness or disease), as indicated by the verb kakopaqe/w (“suffer bad[ly]”); and (2) the opposite, where things are going well for a person, so that one “has a good impulse” (eu)qume/w, in English idiom we might say “is in good spirits”). One is to “speak out toward” God, making a request in prayer, when suffering affliction.

“Is any(one) among you without strength [i.e. sick/weak]? He must call alongside the elders of (the ones) called out (to assemble) [i.e. the congregation], and they must speak out toward (God) over him, rubbing [him] with oil in the name of the Lord.” (v. 14)

Quite often, sickness is defined by the term a)sqenh/$ (lit. “without strength”); here the denominative verb as)qene/w (occurring 33 times in the NT) is used, meaning “be without strength” (i.e. “be sick, weak”). This refers specifically to someone who is sick or weakened by illness, disease, or a debilitating condition. Such a person ought to call on leading ministers (“elders”) of the congregation, and it is they who will pray to God, anointing (lit. rubbing) him with oil reserved (and consecrated) for just such a ritual purpose. All of this is done “in the name of the Lord”, that is, in Jesus’ name, in accordance with early Christian tradition (cf. above).

“And the (word) of trust, spoken out (to God), shall save the (one) being wearied (by sickness), and the Lord shall raise him (up); and, if he would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s, they shall be released [i.e. forgiven] for him.” (v. 15)

Interestingly, here it is not the trust/faith of the sick person, but of those ministering to him, that leads to healing. The trust of the sick person certainly is implicit in the process, at least insofar as he/she has trusted enough to call on the elders for help. Some allowance would doubtless be made for the person’s weakened condition; in such instances, it is necessary for the rest of the community (esp. the leaders of the congregation) to give their strength (of faith) to the person in his/her weakness. The trust of the ministers is expressed through their prayer, spoken out (loud) to God. This verse would seem to promise that such a prayer will be answered, when performed in the proper context of the community, where it is done “in Jesus’ name”.

On the latter point, there may certainly be a tendency to treat prayer “in Jesus’ name” as a quasi-magical formula, which, in turn, would lead to a superstitious sort of Christian practice. It may be debated the extent to which a magical healing-formula is in view here in the letter of James, any more so than in the early apostolic miracle-traditions in the book of Acts (cf. above). In the best sense, we are dealing not with a specific formula, but of trust in the divine power of Jesus Christ that is at work, in and among believers, through his Spirit (which also the Spirit of God). This seems to be specified here by the expression eu)xh\ th=$ pi/stew$ (“[word] of trust spoken out”). Ultimately, it is the power of Christ himself (“the Lord”) that raises the person back to health.

The verse here also makes a rather clear association between sickness/illness and sin, though recognizing (as elsewhere in the New Testament), that such illness is not necessarily the direct result of sin. Thus, there is the conditional statement here, using the subjunctive (and introduced by the conditional particle e)a/n): “if any one would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s”, i.e., if the person has been committing any sins that may have led to his/her illness. The promise is that, through the prayer of trust, such sins will be forgiven (lit. “released”). In all likelihood, there is a similar connection between sin and illness in 1 John 5:14-17, a passage for which a precise interpretation has been notoriously difficult (and controversial). I discuss it at length in prior notes and studies. Whatever else one may say about the 1 John passage, it deals with the issue of the prayer by the community for a person who has sinned, and who may be suffering (illness?) as a result.

“So (also) you must give out an account as one to (each) other of the sins (you commit), and you must speak out (to God) over (one an)other, so that you may be healed. The request (to God) of a just (person) has much strength, being at work in (him).” (v. 16)

The connection between sin and illness is further extended here, with an instruction intended to prevent such sickness from occurring, and to bring about regular and timely healing of illness, before it reaches the point where it is necessary to call on the elders. This involves the public acknowledgement (i.e. confession) of sin, done on a regular basis. Admittedly, this is an aspect of early Christian practice that has largely disappeared from congregation life over the centuries, and is practically non-existent in most modern day churches. One expects that it would be most difficult to restore the practice, even if one believed that it should be restored (a point that can be debated). It does, however, reflect a sense of cohesive congregational unity that can be judged as quite healthy, on the whole. Like most aspects of communal Christian life, it requires that the practice be rooted in genuine trust, love, and the guidance of the Spirit. This latter point seems to emphasized here in the closing statement, regarding the strength of a just/righteous person’s prayer, based as it is upon the power of God/Christ that is “working in” (vb e)nerge/w) the believer—which we must identify with the Spirit, though it is not stated so in the letter. We might fill in the translation as “(God’s power) being at work (in him)”. On the role of the Spirit, as superseding any specific congregational ritual or practice, this point will be discussed in detail in an upcoming study.

From a Christian standpoint, the just/righteous (di/kaio$) person means, primarily, one who trusts in Jesus; yet the author concludes the discussion with an example of an earlier kind of “righteous one”, from the Old Testament (vv. 17-18)—the prophet Elijah, whose miracle-working power is attributed to his faith and earnest prayer to God. The illustration is taken specifically from the tradition in 1 Kings 18. Elijah was not especially associated with prayer in the Old Testament narratives, but this aspect became more prominent in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., 2/4 Esdras 7:109; m. Taan. 2:4; b. Sanh. 113a; j. Sanh. 10, 28b, etc; cf. Davids, p. 197).

Apart from this passage in James (and the possible context of 1 John 5:14-17, cf. above), there is only one other instance in the New Testament where health and healing are connected with prayer—in 3 John 2. There the sentiment is expressed in the most general manner: it is a wish for health and wholeness (in the body), even as things go well for the person in their soul.

To the relative paucity of references to prayer for healing, we must also add one famous passage where God does not answer a faithful believer’s fervent prayer for healing from a troublesome ailment. This, as you may guess, is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” illustration in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. It will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.


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